Greeks’ criticism of European unity

21 Nov 2011


VICTOR Hugo, the 19th-century novelist, once proclaimed, almost prophetically, that “a day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you Germany, you all nations of the continent, without losing your distinctive qualities and glorious individuality, will be merged within a superior unit”.

The vision espoused by the French literary figure was championed by many – Napoleon, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and even Winston Churchill, to name a few. It eventually culminated in the launch of a monetary union just a decade ago. But the concept of a united states of Europe is fast losing its appeal. The fallout from the eurozone debt crisis has been like a wet blanket thrown right in the face of European idealists who are scrambling back to the drawing board.

The idea that European unity is both the best way of guaranteeing peace in Europe and a natural historical progression has served as a fundamental guideline that has informed pro-Europeans from the get go. The decision to unite over the ruins of a fragmented Europe in the aftermath of World War II was inspired by the values of peace, democracy and prosperity as well as  an abhorrence of nationalism – at least its 19th-century version.

The question now is whether these values can still tip the balance in favour of a unified Europe. More specifically, if these values are able to weather the storm that is now battering Europe.

Is the political structure created to uphold these values strong enough?

Judging from the mayhem caused by the eurozone debt crisis, the structure is indeed wobbly and on the verge of collapse, with unforeseeable consequences for the concept of European unity.

The million-dollar, or euro (to be more precise) question is what type of structure will do the trick. A two-speed Europe in which the affluent north leads and the weaker south follows is the most likely – though unpleasant – scenario.

To Eurosceptics and other critics, the project of European unity is nothing but Germans and French bearing gifts; a Trojan horse that will undermine national governments ensuring the dominance of a Franco-German axis. What they couldn’t achieve through the force of arms they will, so the theory goes, achieve through the force of their economies.

But for any union to work, it goes without saying that some power must be surrendered to a central authority with the power to enact and implement legislation independently of national governments. If the return is a strong currency, economic stability and prosperity, few would object.

The powerful storm that has hit Europe is the result of this political vacuum. The forces of unrestricted markets, speculators and banks will continue to wreak havoc and the well-being of EU citizens will sink further down the list of priorities – thus further emboldening Eurosceptics and nationalists alike.

The problem is not one of Brussels calling the shots at the expense of national governments, as Eurosceptics love to point out, but the exact opposite: Brussels hasn’t been calling enough of them.

Brussels has never had the political clout to push through the necessary legislation, or anything for that matter that would foster tighter political integration.

Europe has been set up as an economic union without the necessary political structure that will guarantee it won’t spiral out of control at the slightest financial hiccup and won’t become merely an expression of German and French interests.

And the proof is in the pudding. The eurozone – the grand project of European unity – seems impotent and, rather embarrassingly so, at the mercy of financial markets and speculators that are threatening to bring the whole edifice crashing down.

Economic unity without a political wrapping is not sustainable and the wrangling and disagreement over how to deal with the Greek crisis is a case in point.

The political vacuum has also, unsurprisingly, taken its toll on electorates across the eurozone. If the German public had their way they would probably choose the Deutschmark over the euro, while large swathes of the left have slammed the project for being hijacked by bankers and the forces of unfettered capitalism.

So, unless European powerhouses like Germany and France are willing to cede power to a central authority, the euro as it stands today will struggle.

Rather than allow the monetary union to fall apart with unforeseeable consequences, further political integration is vital to keeping the dream alive. National governments yielding power to a higher authority is not such a bad idea. Especially when one considers that the 19th-century political philosophy underpinning the concept of the nation-state and the idea of nationalism has given way – in the West at least – to ideas and theories preaching the merits of common values and principles transcending borders.

No one really knows what the future holds. Whether the eurozone will break up or Italy need a bailout is unknown. It is equally unclear  whether the European Central Bank will redefine the rules to enable it to intervene with more punch in the bond markets. What is certain, though, is that Europe needs much stronger consensus as to what direction it must take.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe needs to change its rules in order to solve the crisis, meaning eurozone states may be subject to more stringent rules on issues of debt and spending.

In the grand scheme of things, the European project is barely half a century old and, as such, Europe will inevitably go through a long period of trial and error until it gets it right.

Giscard d’Estaing, the chairman of the convention that drafted the disputed constitution for the EU, urged his listeners to “dream of Europe. Let us imagine a continent at peace, freed of its barriers and obstacles, where history and geography are finally reconciled”.

His vision is a grand one, but Rome was indeed not built in a day.

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